The Cause of Migrants. Interview with Pauline Brücker, Daniel Veron and Youri Lou Vertongen

Critique Internationale, Pauline Brücker, Daniel Veron, Youri Lou Vertongen

The Cause of Migrants. Interview Critique Internationale 84

Pauline Brücker, Daniel Veron and Youri Lou Vertogen are the three coeditors of Critique Internationale, no. 84, "La cause des migrants."


Can you say a little about what you present as a “(public) problematization” of questions to do with migration since 2015? About how they have become objects of media and/or political discourse? And about the social movements that have emerged in their wake?

Firstly, it is important to specify that the public problematization of the migration issue did not begin in the summer of 2015. However, this period seems to have marked a turning point because it transformed the significant—but brief—increase in the arrival of migrants onto European soil into a “crisis” phenomenon, with all the political drama that entails, and which only exceptional measures seemed to be able to address. What could therefore be called the “crisis claims” associated with issues of migration justified a specific mode of government based on urgency, transience, and of course repression. For example, we can see how many of the measures to contain migration phenomenon run counter to the respect of certain fundamental legal principles. The notion of “crisis” has therefore contributed to constructing a secular social fact—migration—as a threat to the social, political, and economic cohesion of European societies. Migration has thus become the instrument of all kinds of xenophobic political trends, which we can now see emerging in public debate.

This is all the more pernicious given that today the question of migration is discussed by a slew of political or media actors who often do not have the knowledge required to hold a rational debate. Migration is therefore reified through over-simplistic discourses, which prevent any attempt at political or long-term responses to a structural phenomenon. We only need to look at the way in which the public debate leads to incorrect use of the legal and institutional categories associated with migration (migrants, refugees, smugglers, etc.) without these aberrations being challenged by those participating in the debate. In this respect, migration is even more an “object” because only those who are outside of it have a voice and a right to speak—political figures, media, associations —but never the migrants themselves.

Yet, those immediately concerned are far from passive in the face of this situation, and the so-called 2015 crisis was immediately followed by new episodes of activism. There are several aspects to these mobilisations. On one hand they are the expression of an opposition to government and European measures, and on the other they convey an alternative representation of the “migration issue,” particularly as a crisis reinforcing national borders, and as a “crisis of reception.” These mobilisations also share the same alternative message in proclaiming the legitimacy of migrants’ rights to settle and a need for what we can call—as others have—a policy of hospitality.


What are the consequences of the growing politicisation of these questions on how they are constructed as research objects for the sociology of migrations and the sociology of social movements? What are the effects of this on the various representations of foreigners?

It is interesting to notice how each new episode of mobilisation around the issue of migration systematically produces its own wave of articles and academic works. Abdelmalek Sayad has already discussed the way in which migration was first considered a “discursive object” before becoming a “scientific object,” thus emphasising the dependency between the politicisation of the issue and how it is constructed as a research object. Indeed, the increasing politicisation of questions relating to migration makes this an increasingly attractive research object for academics. Although we can only rejoice in the popularity of this research object in the social sciences, we do have to question the connection between public problematization and scientific production. In other words, we must question the ways in which our academic research is conditioned by political representations or institutional categorisations. However, the increasing politicisation of migratory questions has led to a renewal of scientific interest in the object of “migration” itself. It further legitimises the approach we have taken here, in this issue of Critique Internationale, which is the combination of the sociology of migration and the sociology of social movements. Although this might seem obvious today, it is worth remembering that it has not always been the case. The sociology of migrations has long resisted a political approach, and the sociology of social movements has not often explored transnational objects like migration. Johanna Siméant paved the way for this dual perspective with her book La cause des sans-papiers (The Cause of Undocumented Migrants).

Although in the 1990s the approach was centred on the question of “undocumented migrants,” the movements that emerged after 2015 were more focused on the figure of the “refugee.” These time periods are approximate and should not obscure the coexistence of different figures of migration that are used in different ways depending on the time and place. However, the slippage between categories is significant. In a context of drastic restriction of economic migration, asylum has become one of the only legitimate paths by which to enter the European territory. Indeed, the emphasis on the figure of the refugee, linked to the evolution of public policy on migration, has influenced the nature of activist discourses, which are now based on the vulnerability of migrants rather than on their labour power. It has also influenced the sensitivity of academic research on the subject.

You emphasise the polymorphous nature of local incarnations of a transnational issue, the right to mobility, and you identify a new field that is political as well as scientific, focused on the migrants’ “search for official status.” Could you explain how this approach invalidates the notion of the improbable mobilisations of migrants and the theory of essential resources for any struggle, on which it is based?

The notion of improbable mobilisations comes from the theory of “resource mobilisation” that itself comes from the theoretical framework of rational choice. This theory argues that all forms of mobilisation require the possession of certain essential resources (knowledge, time, skills, among others) to occur. As a result, the mobilisation of a group that is particularly dominated—like undocumented migrants—necessarily appears “improbable.”

Although we are by no means the first to investigate the validity of this conclusion, our goal here is to demonstrate, based on the mobilisations we have observed in our respective fieldwork sites, that these are in fact not very “improbable” if we pay close attention to the subjectivities of the actors involved.

The Cause of Migrants Shutterstock

There is one argument that does not break away from the theory but encourages us to change our perspective on the “structural” vulnerability of migrants. Their lives in their countries of origin, the length of their migrations, the experiences they have accumulated over the different stages of this mobility all situate migrants within a succession of living spaces, and academic researchers often neglect this heterogeneity. From a purely Euro-centric perspective, the migrant is always “arriving” and their experiences prior to this arrival are rarely taken into account. Yet in our respective fieldwork we have observed that these actors draw on this experience of migration, accumulated before arriving in the “host country,” in their mobilisations. This is in itself a “resource” specific to migrants and decries the image of the migrant without any experience in collective action. Moreover, as an undeniable vector of experience for migrants, migration can itself be considered a social and collective mobilisation.

A second arguments breaks more substantially away from the resource-based approach and gives a central place to the subjectivities of migrants, and in particular the question of emotion or everyday life. Fear, disappointment, bitterness, but also perseverance or general everyday resilience are elements that allow us to understand how migrant actors engage with social movements—or indeed disengage. From this perspective, it is indeed the “search for official status” that generates a deep hope to have a place within the social life of the host country, as much as it generates disappointment and anger at the hypocrisy of democratic values brandished by the societies in which the migrants actually live. This more comprehensive approach to social movements allows us to consider an aspect of migrants’ mobilisation that the theory of resource mobilisation does not allow us to grasp.

Between political and humanitarian support, the migrant actors themselves speak, describe their experiences, reveal their strategies, and their repertoires for action. These subaltern subjectivities can only be really understood through an ethnographic approach. How is the vision of the researcher influenced by the fact that migrants constitute active political subjects?

This question is in fact directly connected to the previous one. Johanna Siméant said, paraphrasing Bourdieu, that “groups do not mobilise themselves, they are mobilised”. And in fact, many of the researchers working on “migrants’ rights” mainly consider “the cause” as constructed by associative and militant actors. There are several reasons for this: the shared social characteristics between researchers and “migrants’ supporters” which facilitate contacts between them; the researcher’s “militant” attitude towards their object of study, or even their participation in activist spheres before becoming researchers; language, which is often an obstacle to the possibility of an ethnographic study of migrants; the difficult research conditions for ethnographic study, particularly in places like Calais; and the length of time needed to establish relationships based on trust. There are therefore not many actors who have focused their studies on migrant subjectivities. These obstacles, which are social as well as material, are intrinsically connected to the way mobilisations are seen and therefore the underlying theoretical framework of that perspective.

Although it also showcases other methods, this issue therefore seeks to shed light on an ethnographic approach that is as close as possible to the practices of migrants themselves, their demands, and their expertise. However, this emphasis on migrant subjectivities throws into question not only the position of the researcher during ethnographic research, but also his or her relationship with the object of research. How is it possible to engage a dialogue that is voluntary, in a world in which migrants must constantly “narrate themselves” to legitimise their presence? How can we break free of dominant discursive representations and avoid seeing those who everything leads us to consider “vulnerable” as heroic? How can we avoid speaking in their name or in their stead? How can we talk “with” them? Of course, all these questions are not specific to this research object, but the increasing politicisation of the migration issue means the researcher must necessarily engage with the field, which consequently demands significant reflexivity on their part. The contributions in this issue are testimonies that aim to contribute to this collective reflexivity.

Interview by Catherine Burucoa.

Translation from the French by Katharine Throssell.

Read the introduction to Critique Internationale no. 84 in English


Illustration copyright: Shutterstock

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